By F.B. Meyer
"Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which does so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith." (HEBREWS 12.1-2).
WHEN, in his Egyptian campaign, the Emperor Napoleon was leading his troops through the neighbourhood of the Pyramids, he pointed to those hoary remnants of a great antiquity, and said, "Soldiers, forty centuries look down on you!
Similarly there have been summoned before our thought in the preceding chapter the good and great, the martyrs, confessors, prophets, and kings of the past. We have been led through the corridors of the divine mausoleum, and bidden to read the names and epitaphs of those of whom God was not ashamed.
We have felt our faith grow stronger as we read and pondered the inspiring record, and now, by a single touch, these saintly souls are depicted as having passed from the arena into the crowded tiers, from which to observe the course which we are treading today. They were witnesses to the necessity, nature, and power of faith. They are witnesses also of our lives and struggles, our victories and defeats, our past and present.
And they are compared to a cloud. One of the finest pictures in the world is that of the Madonna de San Sisto at Dresden, which depicts the infant Saviour in the arms of His mother, surrounded by clouds, which attracted no special notice until lately, but when the accumulated dust of centuries was removed, they were found to be composed of myriads of angel faces. Surely this is the thought of the inspired writer when he speaks of "so great a cloud of witnesses."
In some of the more spacious amphitheatres of olden times, the spectators rose in tier above tier to the number of forty or fifty thousand, and to the thought of the combatant as he looked around on this vast multitude of human faces, set in varied and gorgeous colouring, these vast congregations of his race must have appeared like clouds, composed of infinitesimal units, but all making up one mighty aggregate, and bathed in such hues as are cast on the clouds at sunrise or sunset by the level sun.
If before this time these Hebrew Christians had been faltering, and inclined to relinquish their earnestness, they would have been strangely stirred and quickened by the thought that they were living under the close inspection of the spirits of the mighty dead. To us also the same exhortation applies.
THE SPEED OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE. "Let us run." We must not sit still to be carried by the stream. We must not loiter and linger as children returning from a summer's ramble. We must not even walk as men with measured step. We must run. Nor are we only to run as those who double their pace to an easy trot; we must run as men who run a race. The idea of a race is generally competition. Here it is only concentration of purpose, singleness of aim, intensity.
Life in earnest - that is the idea. But how far do we seem from it! And what a contrast there is between our earnestness in all beside, and in our devotion to God and man! We are willing enough to join in the rush of business competition, in the race for wealth, in the heated discussion of politics, and in social life in the pursuit of pleasure, but, ah! how soon we slacken when it becomes a question of how much we are willing to do for God!
How earnest men are around us! Newton pouring over his problems till the midnight wind sweeps over his pages the ashes of his long-extinguished fire. Reynolds sitting, brush in hand, before his canvas for thirty six hours together, summoning into life forms of beauty that seemed glad to come. Dryden composing in a single fortnight his Ode for St. Cecilia's Day. Buffon dragged from his beloved slumbers to his more beloved studies. And the biographer who records these traits himself rising with the dawn to prepare for the demands of his charge.
In a world like this, and with a theme like ours, we ought not to be languid and supine, but devoted, eager, consumed with a holy love to God, and with a passion for the souls of men. Then would we make progress in the knowledge of the Word of God, and enter into the words of one of the greatest spiritual athletes that ever lived, "This one thing I do . . . I press toward the goal for the prize of the high calling in Christ Jesus."
WE MUST RUN FREE OF WEIGHTS. This speed can only be maintained when we run unencumbered and free. Now, of course we would all admit the necessity of divesting ourselves of sins, but in all our lives there are weights which are not sins.
A sin is that which in its very nature, and always, and by whoever perpetrated, is a transgression of God's law, a violation of God's will. But a weight is something which in itself or to another may be harmless, or even legitimate, but in our own case is a hindrance and an impediment.
Every believer must be left to decide what is his own special weight. We may not judge for one another. What is a weight to one is not so to all. But the Holy Spirit, if He be consulted and asked to reveal the hindrance to the earnestness and speed of the soul's progress in divine things, will not fail to indicate it swiftly and infallibly. And this is the excellence of the Holy Spirit's teaching: it is ever definite.
If you have a general undefined feeling of discouragement, it is probably the work of the great enemy of souls, but if you are aware of some one hindrance and encumbrance which stays your speed, it is almost certainly the work of the divine Spirit, who is leading you to relinquish something which is slackening your progress in the spiritual life.
No man would think of maintaining a high speed encompassed with weights. The lads who run for a prize litter the course with garments flung away in their eager haste. There would be little difficulty in maintaining an intense and ardent spirit if we were more faithful in dealing with the habits and indulgences which cling around us and impede our steps.
Thousands of Christians are like water-logged vessels. They cannot sink, but they are so saturated with inconsistencies and worldliness and permitted evil that they can only be towed with difficulty into the celestial port.
Is there anything in your life which dissipates your energy from holy things, which disinclines you to the practise of prayer and Bible study, which rises before you in your best moments, and produces in you a general sense of uneasiness and disturbance, something which others account harmless, and permit, and in which you once saw no cause for anxiety, but which you now look on with a feeling of self-condemnation? It is likely enough a weight.
Is there anything within the circle of your consciousness concerning which you have to argue with yourself, or which you do not care to investigate, treating it as a bankrupt treats his books into which he has no desire to enter, or as a votary of pleasure treats the first symptoms of decaying vitality which he seeks to conceal from himself? We so often allow in ourselves things which we would be the first to condemn in others.
We frequently find ourselves engaged in discovering ingenious reasons why a certain course which would be wrong in others is justifiable in ourselves. All such things may be considered as weights. It may be a friendship which is too engrossing, a habit which is sapping away our energy as the taproot does the fruit bearing powers of a tree, a pursuit, an amusement, a pastime, a system of reading, a method of spending time, too fascinating and too absorbing, and therefore harmful to the soul - which is tempted to walk when it should run, and to loiter when it should haste.
But, you ask, Is it not a sign of weakness, and will it not tend to weakness, always to be relinquishing these and similar things? Surely, you cry, the life will become impoverished and barren when it is stripped in this way of its precious things.
Not so. It is impossible to renounce anything at the bidding of the inner life without adding immensely to its strength; for it grows by surrender, and waxes strong by sacrifice. And for every unworthy object which is forsaken there follows an immediate enrichment of the spirit, which is the sufficient and unvarying compensation.
The athlete gladly foregoes much that other men value, and which is pleasant to himself, because his mind is intent on the prize, and he considers that he will be amply repaid for all the hardships of training if he be permitted to bear it away, though it be a belt he will never wear, or a cup he will never use.
How much more gladly should we be prepared to relinquish all that hinders our attainment, not of the uncertain bauble of the athlete, but the certain reward, the incorruptible crown, the smile and "well-done" of our Lord!
There is an old Dutch picture of a little child dropping a cherished toy from its hands, and, at first sight, its action seems unintelligible, until, at the corner of the picture, the eye is attracted to a white dove winging its flight toward the emptied outstretched hands. Similarly we are prepared to forego a good deal when once we catch sight of the spiritual acquisitions which beckon to us. And this is the true way to reach consecration and surrender.
Do not ever dwell on the giving-up side, but on the receiving side. Keep in mind the meaning of the old Hebrew word for consecration, to fill the hand. There will not be much trouble in getting men to empty their hands of wood, hay, and stubble if they see that there is a chance of filling them with the treasures which gleam from the faces or lives of others, or which call to them from the page of Scripture.
The world pities us, because it sees only what we give up, but it would hold its sympathy if it could also see how much we receive "good measure, pressed down, and running over given into our bosoms."
WE MUST LAY ASIDE BESETTING SIN. "Let us lay aside the sin which does so closely cling to us" (R.V.). We often refer to these words. No sentence of the Bible is more often on our lips. But do we not misquote them in divorcing them from their context? We should read them as part of the great argument running through the previous chapter, and of which they are the culmination and brilliant climax.
That argument has been devoted to the theme of faith. Case after case has been adduced of the exploits of the heroes of Hebrew story; and it has been shown that in each faith was the secret motive and the sufficient power.
The close connection between that glowing panegyric and the opening words of the following chapter is shown by the word "Wherefore," which even defies the wanton intrusion of the division forced upon us in our English version.
And surely it is most natural to hold that the sin which so closely clings to us is nothing else than the sin of unbelief, which is the opposite pole to the faith so highly eulogised.
If that be a correct exegesis, it sheds new light on unbelief. It is no longer an infirmity, it is a sin. Men sometimes carry about their doubts, as beggars a deformed or sickly child, to excite the sympathy of the benevolent. But surely there is a kind of unbelief which should not meet with sympathy, but rebuke. It is sin which needs to be repented of as sin, to be resisted as sin, and to receive as sin the cleansing of Christ.
Unbelief may, as in the case of Thomas, spring from intellectual and constitutional difficulties. But these will not lead the soul to vaunt itself as surpassing others in insight, or to relinquish the society of others with happier constitutions, or, above all, to forego the habit of secret prayer. It will rather induce a temper of mind the very opposite of that self-confident, arrogant spirit which prevails so much in the unbelievers of our time.
But much unbelief springs from moral causes. The soul gets wrong with God, and says that it is not sure whether there is a God. The windows are allowed to be covered with grime, and then it doubts whether the sun is shining. The faculties of the inner life are clogged with neglect, and refuse to do their appointed office in revealing the spiritual and the unseen.
We would be wiser if we dealt with much of the unbelief of our time as a disease of the spiritual life, rather than of the intellectual. Its source is largely moral. Do not set agnostics to study evidences, but show them that their temper of heart is the true cause of their darkness and unbelief.
God has given each of us powers of discerning His truth, which will certainly perceive and love it, and where the reverse is the case, it is often due to some moral obliquity, to some beam in the eye, to some secret indulgence, which is destructive of all spiritual perception.
Put away known sin. Read the Bible, even though you doubt its inspiration. Wait. Pray. Live up to all the light you have. And unbelief will drop away as the old leaves from the evergreens in spring.
There will, of course, be difficulties in all our lives to impede our heavenward progress: difficulties from the opposition of our foes, difficulties from within our own hearts. We shall need patience and long forbearance as we tread our appointed track. But there are two sources of comfort open to us.
Let us remember that the course is set before us by our heavenly Father, who therefore knows all its roughness and straitness, and will make all grace abound toward us, sufficient for our need. To do His will is rest and heaven.
Let us "look off unto Jesus." Away from past failure and success, away from human applause and blame, away from the gold pieces scattered on the path, and the flowers that line either side.
Do not look now and again, but acquire the habit of looking always, so that it shall become natural to look up from every piece of daily work, from every room, however small, from every street, however crowded, to His dear, calm, sweet face, just as the sojourner on the northern shores of Geneva's lake is constantly prone to look up from any book or work on which the attention may have been engaged, to behold the splendour and glory of the noble range of snow-capped summits on the further shores. And if it seems hard to acquire this habitual attitude, trust the Holy Spirit to form it in your soul.
Above all, remember that where you tread, there your Lord once trod, combating your difficulties and sorrows, though without sin, and ere long you shall be where He is now. Keep your eye fixed, then, on Him as He stands to welcome and reward you, and struggle through all, animated by His smile, and attracted to His side, and you will find weights and unbelief dropping off almost insensibly and of themselves.
This is the only way by which souls can be persuaded. Argue with them, urge them, try to force them - and they will cling the closer to the encumbrances which are clogging their steps. But present to them Jesus in the beauty and attractiveness of His person and work, and there will be a natural loosening of impediments, as the snow which had been bending the leaves to the earth drops away when the sun begins to shine.
And God never takes aught from us, without giving us something better. He removes the symbol, to give us the reality; breaks the type, to give the substance, releases us from the natural and human, to give us the divine. Oh, trust Him, soul, and dare to let go, that you may take, to be stripped, that you may become clothed!